Turkey opposition candidate named Istanbul mayor despite objections of Erdogan's party

Seventeen days after winning elections, Ekrem Imamoglu officially takes office but the ruling party is calling for a new election

Borzou Daragahi
Istanbul
Wednesday 17 April 2019 20:50
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Istanbul opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu arrives to collect his mandate to serve as mayor of Istanbul

Turkey's opposition surged with excitement on Wednesday as its candidate Ekrem Imamoglu officially took control as mayor of Istanbul – the first time in 25 years the metropolis has been out of the hands of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's political party.

But Mr Erdogan and his allies are refusing to relent, and the country's supreme election commission may still overturn the results and order another election.

"We have never given up on the unity and togetherness brought forward by the 16 million people living in this city," said Mr Imamoglu, the rising star in Turkey’s opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), before entering the Istanbul municipal headquarters for a handover ceremony.

"We are aware of our responsibilities. We know this city's needs. From today, Istanbul's municipal building is open for business."

As the mild-mannered 48-year-old arrived in the city's main courthouse to collect official confirmation of his victory, he was surrounded by a chaotic crush of well-wishers chanting slogans – a reflection of the kind of excitement he has generated among opposition supporters.

Later he addressed thousands of cheering supporters, waving Turkish flags, gathered in front of the Istanbul municipal headquarters.

While Mr Erdogan's AKP remains the most popular party in the country, it has now lost control of the municipal governments of the country's main cities, including Ankara, which it also had controlled for a quarter century.

During the election campaign, few believed the bookish, bespectacled former developer could beat Mr Erdogan's political machine and his party's candidate, Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister, speaker of parliament, and transport minister.

"I had promised to win your hearts over time," he told supporters, holding a microphone and standing next to his wife, Dilek. "I have kept my promise."

Mr Imamoglu narrowly defeated the strongly favoured Mr Yildirim of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 31 March municipal elections that represented an unexpected setback for Mr Erdogan, who built his career as mayor of Istanbul 25 years ago. The city has served as the political backbone of the AKP, generating huge real estate deals that benefit the country's powerful development conglomerates and various oligarchs who support the party.

“It seems that the desire for Istanbul is very big in the government, because of all the patronage," said Emre Erdogan, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bilgi University. "They don’t want to transfer ownership of the municipality. It means they will fight for it."

Newly elected Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu arrives at the Istanbul Election Board on Wednesday

The AKP and its far-right ally, the National Movement Party (MHP), have challenged the elections, pointing to unspecified irregularities. First they demanded a recount, and now they are pushing for holding the entire Istanbul elections anew.

Mr Imamoglu holds a 13,000-vote lead. There were few if any complaints or reports of election-day irregularities, and the AKP has yet to present any evidence to back up its claims of fraud. Mr Erdogan’s own interior minister Suleyman Soylu on Wednesday rejected the AKP’s fraud claims. “The election system in Turkey is better than anywhere else in the world,” local media quoted him as saying. “The system has no flaws. Such a discussion is baseless."

Legal experts say the Supreme Election Commission – which is said to be packed with appointees by Mr​ Erdogan – could still vacate Mr Imamoglu’s mandate, and call for another election, and many analysts said they could not fathom the AKP not fighting for Istanbul until the end.

It seems that the desire for Istanbul is very big in the government, because of all the patronage. They don’t want to transfer ownership of the municipality.

Emre Erdogan, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bilgi University

The Supreme Election Council has already ordered a redo of the municipal contest in Honaz, a town of 30,000 that the AKP lost by a single vote.

But that would carry risks for the government and the ruling party. Increasingly impatient supporters of Mr Imamoglu have been chanting in support of his mayoralty at football games, and a rerun of the election could draw even more opposition voters frustrated by a flailing economy and eroding political freedoms under the AKP.

Still some people can't countenance the idea of the AKP giving up on Istanbul, even if it means further undermining Turkey's fragile democratic institutions.

"For the AKP, the cost of losing Istanbul is greater than the image of Turkey as a liberal democracy," said Mr Erdogan, the scholar.

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